Securing grant funds for nonprofit organizations in the outdoor sector is immensely challenging in any given year, but especially this year due to COVID-19. This may come as a surprise in Colorado, where it seems like the love for our mountains and outdoor recreation is a universal truth. It also came as a surprise to me when I made a major career change and joined the ZIM team in 2018. After taking on one of my first grant writing clients in the outdoor sector, I realized it wasn’t as easy to find interested funders in Colorado who were well-aligned with the client’s outdoor education and conservation programming as I had anticipated.
Why is this?
To be frank, grant funding in Colorado is an ultra-competitive process. Year after year, Colorado ranks high on the list for the most nonprofit organizations per capita, which is a reflection of a state that cares about using its resources to serve the community. While there are plenty of individual donors who support organizations aligned with their personal interests and values, most nonprofit organizations lean on foundation support to remain sustainable and grow their programs. Most of the largest Colorado-based foundations do not have explicit funding priorities around the outdoors, but instead trend towards basic human needs, mental health, addiction recovery, K-12 education, economic opportunity, or senior services.
I believe to my core that the outdoors is the intersection of all of these things. Being in nature is a basic human need; it’s one of the simplest ways to improve your mental health and it’s a tool commonly used in many addiction recovery programs. The outdoors teaches some of the most fundamental life lessons to our children, it draws tourists in as one of Colorado’s most profitable industries, and people of all ages, including older adults, can enjoy what the outdoors has to offer. In short, the outdoors plays a large role as a major, systemic driver for healthy communities. Look no further than the forest fires that have devastated areas of Colorado this summer, in part due to climate change and in part due to a lack of proper forest management and fire mitigation. This is why outdoor education and conservation programs are absolutely critical.
So why isn’t it getting the attention it deserves?
In my time as a grant writer, I’ve come to the conclusion there isn’t any one, all-encompassing answer to this question, but I think the outdoors has taken a backseat for many local foundations, and even more so during COVID-19. We’ve seen a surge of COVID-19 relief funding from CARES Act dollars distributed through the state and individual counties and cities, as well as funds re-allocated from foundations' typical grantmaking strategies. However, most nonprofits in the outdoor sector have not been eligible for COVID-19 funding intended for basic needs services.
My guess is that there is going to be a lot of “catching” up for nonprofits in the outdoor sector in coming years. In May, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked the outdoor industry as the one of the most affected by the coronavirus-induced downturn, second only to the food and accommodations sector (Denver Post, 2020). Without the support of COVID-19 relief funds, these organizations have relied heavily on their core group of individual donors, but donor fatigue is quickly setting in. Organizations have been forced to make drastic cuts to their budgets, scale back programs, furlough or eliminate staff positions, and rely on their board for substantial contributions to make up the differences.
Despite a lack of funding, outdoor organizations are under immense pressure to serve the community more than ever before. As COVID-19 has made it harder to dine-in at restaurants, go shopping, see a movie, participate in sporting events, and travel, people are relying on the great outdoors as their refuge during these dark times. Although it’s exciting to see more people feel motivated to get outside, there is also a huge need to ensure our trails are clean and people are educated to recreate responsibly. As national forests and state parks are experiencing big crowds, more problems with litter and vandalism are arising (Denver Post, 2020). After ski resorts were forced to end the season early, Colorado saw record numbers of inexperienced skiers attempting dangerous backcountry terrain off Loveland Pass, Berthoud Pass, and Monarch Pass, placing greater strain on rescue teams. And I can personally attest that in my ten years of climbing the Colorado 14ers, I have never seen our peaks so packed and our campsites so littered.
This is where our outdoor nonprofits come into the equation with education and conservation programs. Now, more than ever, we need people to learn and practice the principles of Leave No Trace, understand trail etiquette, learn how to safely navigate in the backcountry, and evaluate their experience and limits. While there are many great organizations doing exactly that, they are at risk of having to close their doors amid the current pandemic.
In closing, we cannot ignore that the outdoors plays a major role in creating healthy, thriving communities. Once the dust settles from the COVID-19 pandemic, my greatest hope it that funding for outdoor organizations will start to take a front seat in grant priorities. In the meantime, here are ways to support what these organizations can offer:
Learn a new skill: Many organizations, such as the Colorado Mountain Club, offer classes in everything from wilderness trekking to high altitude mountaineering.
Participate in a trail project: Organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Field Institute coordinate a wide range of trail maintenance and restoration projects.
Leah Rosenthal | Grant Writer
Leah comes to Zim after a 5-year career working in the financial services industry for a major brokerage firm, where she specialized in inheritance and estate matters. She has been involved with nonprofits ever since college—most notably with the Colorado Mountain Club, where she currently serves as an elected council member for the Denver chapter.